Shanghai French Concession

Shanghai Former French Concession

A tapestry of history and culture in my local neighborhood

Shanghai view from my window
Our view from our home located in the FFC at the 5-way intersection of HuaiHai, Wukang, Tianping, Yuqing and Xingguo Roads.

Nestled in the heart of Shanghai, amongst tree-lined streets and alleys mainly located at the Huangpu and Xuhui District the Former French Concession 上海法租界 (“FFC”) stands as a testament to the city’s rich and diverse history.

Shanghai French Concession mapConcessions were the lands given over (conceded) to individual governments and controlled by those governments and where the Chinese government had no authority. The concessions were policed by individual forces. In Shanghai, there were two foreign concessions. One was the French Concession controlled exclusively by the French. The other was the British Concession that later became known as the International Settlement controlled by Great Britain, the US and a broad mix of other governments. The French Concession was the most prosperous with the largest area.

The roots of the French Concession can be traced back to the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, which concluded the First Opium War and opened up Shanghai as a treaty port. The French Concession was established on April 6, 1849, when Lin Kouei 麟桂, the Chinese Governor of Shanghai, granted French Consul Charles de Montigny a proclamation ceding extraterritoriality to France in order to establish a trading colony, allowing them extraterritorial rights and autonomy over the concession area.  With 162 acres, its borders were progressively expanded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the first expand was in 1900 which is in a small degree, while in 1914, the concession was largely expanded, and during the 1920s, the area was developed into the premier residential and retail districts of Shanghai in the city’s jazzy 1920s. It was called the Paris of the East.

Old French Consulate Shanghai 1913

One of the defining features of the FFC is its unique blend of European and Chinese architectural styles. The tree-lined avenues (the trees are called platane in French, were imported from France), wind between charming villas, art deco buildings, and narrow alleyways known as “longtangs.” These architectural remnants of the past create a distinct atmosphere that sets the French Concession apart from other areas in Shanghai.

The Concession area is home to many stately garden houses. Each of these stand alone two story villas has a large garden and in most cases have been restored to their former grace rather than renovated. They are the most exclusive properties in the city. Lane houses are found in shikumen. Each shikumen (literally stone gate), or lane, is a micro community of formerly 3 or 4-floor townhouses which in most cases were divided into smaller dwellings. They usually come with a small courtyard with a high stone fence or roof patio. Colonial apartments fill the gaps, many of which are in classic art-deco buildings designed by famous architects in the first half of the 20th century.

While it existed initially as a settlement for the French, who never settled in big numbers, other nationalities soon moved in, with significant populations of British, Americans and Russians who fled to Shanghai and entered the mix after the Russian Revolution in 1917.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the French Concession was a golden age for Shanghai and became a hub of cultural and social activity. It was home to a number of famous writers, artists, and intellectuals. While China was ruled by Chiang Kai-shek, Shanghai became a cosmopolitan haven in the midst of political unrest and a center for global trade and finance. The area was also known for its vibrant nightlife, with numerous bars, restaurants, and clubs catering to the expat community.

Paul Robeson ShowboatPaul Robeson, the renowned African-American singer, actor, and activist, left an indelible mark during the 1930s, Robeson’s powerful voice captivated audiences with his renditions of traditional folk songs and stirring performances. Robeson’s outspoken advocacy for civil rights and his condemnation of racial inequality resonated with many in Shanghai, fostering a connection that transcended borders. His presence living in the FFC left an enduring legacy, showcasing the universal language of music and activism that knows no geographical bounds.

However, the French Concession also played a role in the tumultuous events that took place in China during this period. In 1927, the area was the site of the infamous Shanghai Massacre, in which communist and trade union activists were rounded up and executed by the ruling Kuomintang government.

Shanghai’s Decadence

Moreover, lacking the moral constrains that limited social life in Europe and America, Shanghai became nexus for the opium trade, prostitution, sexual excess, gambling, murder, protection rackets, supply of revolutionary troops and munitions, and other vices. Gangsters, revolutionaries, pimps and prostitutes filled the neighborhoods’ notorious venues making it a rather troublesome, albeit enticing place.

To some, the vice capital of the world… 

3 Kings of Shanghai Mansion Hotel

Huang JinyongWhat began with a gang of crooked shipping experts promising to ensure that goods made it onto ships on time, for a healthy cut of the profits flourished thanks to Huang Jinrong 黃金榮, Chinese Chief Detective of the Shanghai French Concession police force from 1892. Huang Jinrong’s dealings led him to become associated with the notorious Green Gang, a secret criminal organization initially focussed on Opium. Huang Jinrong and his wife ran the criminal empire for years in the French Concession, running gambling dens, prostitution rings, the opium trade and protection rackets.

Du YueshengDu Yuesheng 杜月笙, better known as “Big Eared Du”, became Huang Jinrong’s gambling and opium enforcer. He was known to send coffins to the homes of locals that were on his enforcing list. Du Yuesheng was also a key supporter of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang in their battle against the Communists. Du Yuesheng’s prestige led him to purchase a 4-storey, Western-style mansion in the French Concession and have dozens of concubines, four legal wives and many children. Each wife had her own floor.

Zhang XiaolinHuang Jinrong was dismissed from the police force in 1924 after he publicly beat up Lu Xiaojia, son of the then Shanghai-ruling warlord Lu Yongxiang. Huang Jinrong was arrested and only released after Du Yuesheng and 3rd member of the gang  Zhang Xiaolin 张啸林 diplomatically negotiated and paid for his release with a large bribe. Huang Jinrong almost immediately, turning his criminal empire over to Du Yuesheng who was by now was known as the grandmaster of the criminal underworld.

Du Yuesheng then diversified the Green Gang business by setting up legitimate shipping companies and his own bank. The Mansion Hotel in the French Concession was the former headquarters of the gang. At one point, his crew controlled a vast majority of the world’s opium trade and is rumored to have sent $20 million per year to French officials as payoffs so he could continue his business in the French Concession.

Things got political when Du Yuesheng and his Green Gang was tasked with removing Communist Party leaders (the future Chairman Mao Zedong had attended his first Communist Party meeting in the French Concession in 1921). This relationship benefited both parties, as Du Yuesheng provided troops and munitions to Chiang Kai-shek, and in return, Du Yuesheng was allowed to conduct his illegal business dealings without fear of reprisal. Chiang Kai-shek granted Du Yuesheng the rank of general in the National Revolutionary Army.

This ephemeral world come crashing down on January 28, 1932, when the ‘Shanghai Incident‘ pitted the Republic of China against the Empire of Japan. Responding to Chinese student protests against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, the Japanese Navy bombarded Shanghai. Chiang Kai-shek sent the Chinese army in to defend the Shanghai students, threatening to escalate the conflict.

The concession was mistakenly bombed during the chaotic 1937 Battle of Shanghai, fought between the National Revolutionary Army  of the Republic of China and the Imperial Japanese Army.

During the World War Ⅱ, When France was defeated by the Nazis, on February 23, 1943, the Vichy France government agreed to abandon the concession within China to the Japanese puppet regime. On July 30 it was renamed it as “No. 8 District”, which is also the announcement of the end of Shanghai French Concession. The FFC came under the control of the Japanese, who occupied Shanghai from 1941 to 1945. The area was heavily damaged during the war, and many of its residents fled or were forced to leave. The turnover was officially ratified after the Japanese surrendered ending World War II by the Sino-French Accord of February 1946, signed by the French Ambassador and Chiang Kai-shek.

Once the Communist Party defeated Chiang’s Kuomintang government during the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Chiang went into exile in Taiwan. Du Yuesheng was forced to flee escaping to Hong Kong. The Green Gang disbanded, and all business assets including real estate was seized by The Communist Party. Many of the stately European-style homes in the area were allocated to workers, who would share the multi-storey homes among several families.

The area has been a leased territory for nearly a century, and after its return, about 240 roads in the FFC were renamed in Chinese. Although you won’t find the name “French Concession” written on any Chinese maps, it is easily identified by the dramatic change in scenery as the city landscape changes from traffic-heavy, congested streets full of a mismatch of style into the elegant tree-lined streets awash in art deco and old-world residential charm encompassing the districts of Luwan, Xuhui, Changning and Jin’an. 

The FFC remained largely unchanged during the early decades of Communist rule in China. In the early 1990s, largely unregulated re-development of the area tore apart many old neighbourhoods. For example, the old French Club building and its gardens, which used to be a sports field in the early days, were removed and became the base of the high-rise Okura Garden Hotel. The government later enforced more stringent development and planning controls in this area.

These days the French concession is of course 100% China-owned and operated, hence why it’s “former”, yet remains Shanghai’s most desirable neighborhood.


Wukang Lu / Ferguson Road
On my home’s intersection is Wukang Lu which was first built in 1907, formerly name Ferguson. Wukang Lu is very popular and it becomes a typical case of commercial development re-stimulating the vitality of the historical scene. There are 30 former residences of celebrities and 37 historical architectures along this only 1,183-meter long road. Every garden and building here has witnessed a legendary period. Wukang Lu is well-known as one of the most European-style roads in downtown Shanghai. Locals also call it “Celebrity Street”. Ferguson Lane at 376 Wukang Lu is a charming pedestrian space with restaurants and wine bars in a complex styled with art deco design elements.

Shanghai Wukang Normandy Building with Toby and DJWukang Building
Across the street from my home is the Wukang Building,  a well-known landmark building in the Shanghai FFC, so it’s a must-visit attraction. Wukang Building (formerly I.S.S Normandy Apartments) was built in 1924 by the architect Laszlo Hudec. It is an exterior-corridor type apartment of French Renaissance style. Covering a constructive area of 9,275 square meters, Wukang Building has eight floors with a total height of over 30 meters. Wukang Building is listed in excellent historical buildings registry in 1994.

Huaihai Middle Lu / Avenue Joffre
On my home’s intersection is Central Huaihai Lu, a boulevard stretching across the FFC in an east–west direction. The road was renamed after Joseph Joffre in 1916, with the name unveiled by the marshal himself in 1922. Avenue Joffre was a tram route. Its eastern section featured Shikumen residences. Its western part featured high-end residential developments, including standalone houses and apartment blocks. The central section was – and is – a popular shopping area, with many shops opened by the Russian community. It remains a high-end retail district.

Dongping Lu / Route Francis Garnie
Dongping Lu, formerly called Route Francis Garnie, was built in 1913 by Shanghai French Concession Bureau. With the petty bourgeoisie and elegant tranquility, Dongping Road is also called “Lover’s Land”. Many former residences of celebrities are located here, such as the “Love House” of Chiang Kai-shek and Song Meiling in 9 Dongping Lu, the garden residence of Song Ziwen at 11 Dongping Lu and the private residence of Xi Deyi at 1 Dongping Lu.

Shaoxing Lu / Route Victor Emmanuel Ⅲ
Shaoxing Lu of Shanghai FFC, formerly named after an Italian king “Route Victor Emmanuel Ⅲ”, was established in 1926. When you enter Shaoxing Lu, the noise of surrounding traffic will immediately disappear. It is the most book-scented road in Shanghai. Every corner here is filled with a quiet literary atmosphere, because there are many first-class publishing houses and magazines, as well as famous bookstores and galleries gathering on this only 480-meter long road. Known as “Publication Street”, there are many mysterious coffee shops hidden in the shades of trees.

Fuxing Park
Covering the total area of the park is 88,900 square meters, Fuxing Park is located at 105 Yandang Lu. Fuxing Park is one of the earliest parks opened in Shanghai and the best-preserved French classical garden. It is also a masterpiece of the fusion of Chinese and Western garden culture in Modern Shanghai. Various carnivals and concerts are often held in Fuxing Park.

Shanghai XintiandiXintiandi
Xintiandi is a pedestrian-only entertainment district located in the heart of the FFC in Shanghai. It is a trendy area that features a mix of historic Shikumen-style buildings and modern architecture. Xintiandi is known for its upscale shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants, as well as its lively nightlife scene offering a unique blend of Chinese and Western culture.

As one of the most popular attractions in Shanghais FFC, Tianzifang is located in 210 Taikang Lu. Tianzifang was named by a famous Chinese painter Huang Yongyu. Tianzifang presents the lane life of local people in Shanghai. Walking around in a labyrinth of alleys, you will see boutiques, art workshops, galleries, tea houses, coffee shops, etc…

Soong Ch’ing-ling Residence
Across the street from my home is Soong Ch’ing-ling’s former residence which has been transformed into a museum. In 1918, Soong and her husband Sun Yat-sen lived in a house in the central French Concession. From 1948 to 1963 Soong Ching-ling lived in the western end of the French Concession which is now the Soong Ching-ling Memorial Residence. A memorial hall containing some of her belongings and photographs stands near the entrance. The main building and gardens are preserved in near original state with original furnishings throughout. In the garage are two large cars: one Chinese built Red Flag limousine and another Russian car presented to Soong by Joseph Stalin.

Shanghai Canidrome

SHCP Canidrome 1940 dog racing ticketThe English name “Canidrome” is a composition of cani- (dog) and drome (race course). The Canidrome was also bylined the “Rendezvous for Shanghai’s Elite”.  Yet the Chinese pronunciation of the word “Canidrome” can be understood as “to see you become poor” since at that time, a lot of people in Shanghai lost all their money gambling at the dog races.

Located on Rue Lafayette (now Fuxing Zhong Lu) it occupied a large portion of the block formed by what are today Jianguo Lu, Shaanxi Lu, Fuxing Lu and Maoming Lu in the Former French Concession.

The venue with multiple facilities including a stadium and ballroom, was built in 1928 and the stadium could seat 50,000 spectators.  The entire site was under French jurisdiction in the French Concession, its stadium was the largest of 3 stadiums in Shanghai,  It was largely financed by Henry E. Morris, Jr., proprietor of the North China Daily News.

SHCP Canidrome Buck Clayton and his Harlem GentlemenOften regarded to as one of the largest dance floors in Asia, the Canidrome’s open-air ballroom was mostly a facility limited to elitist Westerners.  The ability for Shanghai’s elite citizens to get their foot in the door of the Canidrome was a symbol of their social status.

The timing was good. African-American musicians after World War 1 were flourishing in Paris.  But in June 1933 France enacted the so-called “10% law”. Enacted in the wake of the onset of the Great Depression in Europe the law restricted the number of foreign musicians employed by an establishment to 10%. This caused a lot of unemployment and many musicians found themselves unemployed which encouraged African-American entertainers to travel to Shanghai.

The Canidrome ballroom headlined many African-American acts, mostly in the dance and jazz music genres, including opening with members of the old Jack Carter band forming the nucleus of was considered the best dance orchestra in the Orient.  This band included African-American Teddy Weatherford, Shanghai’s most popular pianist; Jimmy Carson, “That Croonin’ Saxophonist,” and Mendex Lewis, the trumpeter who can play tears into the eyes of anyone.

Later in 1931, Waldmar Volsky and his Midnight Frolics headlined with music by Teddy Wetherford and his Twelve Singing Syncopators along with vocal refrains by Al Baldwin. (he worked in Shanghai shows for 6 years)

In 1933, the Midge Williams and her “Williams Quartette” performed at the Canidrome.  Other headline acts included Bob and Teddy Drinkard.

In 1334, the ballroom engaged American jazz all-black band Buck Clayton’s Harlem Gentlemen.  The venue offered plenty of variety— a castanet dance, a tiller dance, a hornpipe, a hula, a prize fight pantomime, songs, an eccentric jazz dance and an ensemble strut, the latter by the Six Hollywood Blonds and young singer and dancer, Kenneth Willmarth accompanied Buck Claytons orchestra.

Buck Claytons contract was terminated in 1937 after a fisticuff brawl with local ex-American sailor, then Shanghai gambling mobster Jack Riley. A new, white American band— Nathan Rabin’s Champions replaced Buck Clayton.  Buck Clayton’s Harlem Gentlemen stayed n Shanghai and opened his show at the Ladow’s Casanova Cabaret.

Canidrome Ad Buck Clayton April 15 1934SHCP Canidrome Ballroom AdSHCP Canidrome Ballroom AdSHCP Canidrome ProgramCanidrome Buck Clayton Harlem Gentlemen SHCP Canidrome Perform

Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Soong Mei-ling (宋美齡) and her sister Soong Ai-ling (宋蔼龄), were regulars at the Canidrome.

The outbreak of the Pacific War and the occupation of the French Concession by the Japanese in December 1941 led to the Canidrome ceasing operation.

During the Japanese occupation, the grounds were used to stable horses by the Imperial Japanese Army.

At the end of the war, in 1945, the nationalist government that resumed control of Shanghai did not permit greyhound racing to resume, but the Canidrome was used for sporting and entertainment purposes.

For many years, boxing tournaments were presented.

Canidrome boxing poster (August 12, 1937)Canidrome Boxing U.S. Navy Relief Boxing Lineup (November 16, 1937)Canidrome boxing ad (August 12)Canidrome boxingCanidrome boxing poster (Oct 29, 1937)Canidrome Fourth Marines Regimental Smoker Boxing (October 28, 1938)

Soccer matches were also staged. On March 15, 1941 a game between the Shanghai Municipal Police and a Chinese team turned into a riot, causing 20,000 Chinese spectators to flood the field and numerous injuries reported.

School sports meets and rugby games between Shanghai and Hong Kong were held there.  The US military based in Shanghai played lots of American football games there.

Canidrome 7th Annual Shanghai Schools Sports Meet (May 15, 1936) Canidrome 7th Annual Shanghai Schools Sports Meet (May 15, 1936)Canidrome 1935 Football program between Shanghai Americans and the United States MarinesCanidrome Football Thanksgiving (November 24, 1938)

On December 1, 1945, the Shanghai Stars and Stripes paper sponsored football teams drawn from the United States Army and Navy to play a game at the Canidrome, billed as the “China Bowl” before 10,000 wildly enthusiastic GI’s.  Preparation training on the race course the day prior was abandoned since the city government were executing criminals that day on the field.  Military uniforms were mandatory dress code.  About 20,000 hot dogs and doughnuts were passed out by the Red Cross.  Navy won by a score of 12-0.

Canidrome 1945 Football Army vs Navy ProgramCanidrome December 1, 1945 the First China Bowl Game, Army vs. Navy a crowd of 30,000 watched Canidrome Chinese Soldier at China Bowl 1945 Canidrome 1945 Football Army vs Navy Program half time

The festivities that day included a “Derby Race” of 19 women posing as jockeys in flower decorated rickshaws, pulled by local Chinese (coolies) from the bund’s Navy jetty, down Nanking Lu to Seymour Lu to the finishing line in the Canidrome about 30 minutes later (~ 3½ miles), with a crown of “Miss Ricksha of 1945” and “Queen of the Army-Navy Game” along with a silver cup and prize money of CRB $2,000,000 (~ about USD $400 today). Won by June Nergaard and ‘Coolie’ Paavo-Nurmi Wong. Estimates of spectator crowd size reached about 1,5 million in the streets

 Canidrome Rickshaw Race china bowl 1945Canidrome WWII Stars & Stripes Rickshaw Derby Sterling Silver Trophy Cup (Dec 1, 1945)Canidrome Derby Day Press

John Kander, famed Broadway composer of major musical hits such as Cabaret and Chicago was stationed in Shanghai with the United States Merchant Marine Cadet Corps in 1945 until January 1946, and told me that he attended the Canidrome ‘China Bowl’ and associated Derby, along with other events there.  John also played piano in a Russian brothel in Shanghai for 3 days — “it was the warmest place in Shanghai because there were no radiators and everybody aboard his ship was there” he said.

In 1949, the name was changed to the Shanghai Cultural Square.

Canidrome Cultural meeting 4 July 1949From 1949–1976 it was used as a political meeting hall and a mass execution facility.  Public trial meetings held in the Canidrome were referred to as “The Shanghai Enlarged Joint Meeting of People’s Representatives’ Conference“. During the Cultural Revolution, the site became a venue for public meetings, where Red Guards and other agitators denounced “class enemies” and figures of authority. Political rallies, and Mao himself would take to the stage

The Canidrome and race course were places where mass executions took place in the hands of the Communist Party, killing hundreds each day.  In April 1951, more than 3,000 people were arrested and herded to the Canidrome. On May 1, for example, 500 executions were announced.  The city police, helped by communist political police, in a single night arrested an estimated 24,000 Chinese, and dragged them off to camps in Shanghai’s outskirts.

Among the arrested were former Kuomintang officials, school-teachers, religious leaders, non-communist union leaders, property owners, newspaper workers, factory managers, and students.

SHCP Canidrome Chinese Prisoners En Route To ExecutionSHCP Canidrome Marked for ExecutionSHCP Canidrome Prisoners En Route To Execution

Those to be executed were selected by a committee of 24 communist-appointed “civic leaders”. The Xinhua News Agency reported that Shanghai high-school students marched beside the prisoners on their way to execution beating gongs and drums, and chanting: “Kill nice! Kill them well! Kill all of them!“. At the time 10,000 people gathered and demanded the death of the accused in a unanimous roar.

The Communist government purchased the grounds in 1952 and re-constructed the Canidrome.  The entire race-course was converted into an indoor venue with a capacity of 15,000 people in 1954, along with a semi-open convention space for political assembly.  From 1954 to 1966, over 600 conventions (mainly government rallies) were held involving more than 2 million citizens. The existing grandstand, including its auditorium, was retained. Part of the site became the Shanghai Chinese Opera School.

SHCP Shanghai Culture Square 1970 reconstructionIn 1969, during the chaos of the early Cultural Revolution, the site was largely destroyed by a massive fire that could be seen throughout the city, in which 14 people lost their lives, and destroyed many of the buildings at the Cultural Plaza.  Much of it was reconstructed in 1970 when former Premier Zhou Enlai made a handwritten instruction to rebuild the Cultural Square. The reconstruction was completed after 83 days. With a floor space of 5,700 square meters, the indoor auditorium was erected without a single floor column. The main auditorium was known for a vast unobstructed space and had huge electric fans to keep the air moving

For the 20 years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Cultural Plaza served a number of purposes. Its auditorium was used as performance space for films and theatre.   The North Korean opera, Flower Girl from Pyongyang and the ballets, Swan Lake performed by the Panasonic Theater from Japan and repertoire from Moscow National Theater Ballet were the popular shows during this time.

The large covered space built over the former Canidrome also served as a versatile exhibition space with a conference venue, often housing political conferences and meetings.

Canidrome former site ballroom and race track in the year 2000Beginning from the 1980s, the Shanghai Municipal Government began discussing the redevelopment of the Cultural Plaza area. Decades of neglect had left the buildings in the precinct in need of repair. Construction in the area  since 1949 had lacked overall planning. Its former role as a space for political meetings had diminished in significance, while its role as a performance space had been superseded by newer or better facilities.  In 1988 the entertainment venue closed after a performance from the Brigham Young University Troupe.

SHCP Shanghai Culture Square 1992 Stock ExchangeIn the summer of 1992, the Cultural Square was converted into a temporary stock exchange.

In 1997, this area became the location of the Shanghai Flower Market accounting for 70% to 80% of the city’s annual consumption and making it the largest flower trade market in east China.

In 2003, a series of international design competitions were held.  A plan was adopted to rebuild the area as a park. Certain elements of the original structures would be retained, including the long-span space frame structure over the auditorium, which was, at the time of its construction, the longest such span in the Far East.

The original grandstand, along with most of the other structures in the area were demolished in 2005, making way for today’s Shanghai Cultural Square Theatre.

Shanghai Canidrome

SHCP Canidrome 1939 Monkey jockeys SHCP Canidrome Outside Canidrome 1931 Dog Racing Tickets $5 to PLACE Race No. 4 from Shanghai ChinaCanidrome boxing program ad for dog racing Canidrome 1940 Dog Racing Program Canidrome 7th Annual Shanghai Schools Sports Meet (May 15, 1936) Canidrome 7th Annual Shanghai Schools Sports Meet (May 15, 1936) Canidrome 1931 4th Marines dance program from the Canidrome Ballroom cover Canidrome Fourth Marines Regimental Smoker Boxing Officials (October 28, 1938) Canidrome 1933 Greyhound racing trophy Canidrome 1930 Greyhound racing trophy Canidrome 1939 Greyhound Dog Racing Track badge SHCP Canidrome Shanghai Show World

Toby Simkin’s Broadway Entertainment, LLC
dba within China as: 沈途彬商务咨询(上海)有限公司

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